Event aims to amplify need for transit justice in Columbus

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
A participant demands change at the Columbus Rally for Green Public Transit on July 17, 2021.

To Molly Nichols, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club, the idea of transit justice can be summed up pretty simply. "We make places for cars, not people,” she said. “Our communities have been designed to meet the needs of cars.” 

That car-centric design neglects the needs of citizens who are transit dependent. “Transit justice would be when we actually invest resources to make sure there's adequate public transit infrastructure, not only for transit-dependent riders — especially when you consider a lot of those folks are low income and BIPOC and have historically been excluded with the way we've made transportation decisions — but it's also an opportunity to get more people choosing to take the bus, which helps bring up ridership, and then it helps justify getting higher-capacity transit that runs more frequently,” Nichols said.  

Columbus, in particular, is in dire need of transit justice, said Sierra Club Ohio Chapter’s Becca Pollard. "Columbus is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, but it really has insufficient public transportation. There have been service cuts and a lot of issues during COVID,” Pollard said. “There's such a need for the people who are most dependent on transit to have their needs met, to have more reliable transportation and better infrastructure, like more bus shelters.” 

While transit justice may not seem at first like a top-tier issue for a group like Sierra Club, an environmental organization, Pollard and Nichols said the issue is intertwined with environmental causes. “As the climate crisis gets worse, the people who are most dependent on transit are often the people who live in neighborhoods that, for example, don't have enough shade trees and are often in heat islands,” Pollard said. “It's really important for those folks to be prioritized and to have their needs prioritized, both for their health and safety and just to free up more of their time so that they're not spending hours trying to make connections just to get to work.” 

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To that end, Sierra Club Ohio is partnering with several Central Ohio groups — Sunrise Columbus, Simply Living, Columbus DSA, Columbus Stand Up, SEIU Local One and Students for Democratic Society — to host the Community Speakout for Transit Justice from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 2, at the Fairwood Park playground shelter (1392 Fairwood Ave.) in Southeast Columbus. 

Speakers from various organizations will provide information related to local public transit, but Nichols and Pollard said they primarily want to hear from the community. “We're going to have a transit survey to get people's feedback and find out what issues are really impacting people the most and what they care about the most, which we do plan to share with legislators,” Pollard said. “We will have an opportunity for people who attend the event to have the mic and speak out, to share with the group what their concerns are.” 

It’s no coincidence this event arrives as Congress moves forward with national infrastructure bills, and it’s also no coincidence that Fairwood Park is in U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty’s Third District. (Nichols and Pollard hope to get the attention of Sen. Sherrod Brown, as well; Sierra Club will provide postcards that residents can send to Sen. Brown and Rep. Beatty.)  

“This is newer territory, I think, for the Sierra Club, specifically in Central Ohio,” Nichols said. “But in the next couple of weeks, [legislators] are going to be working on figuring out these numbers of how much money could go to transit funding, and there's a real unique opportunity to actually get operations funding from the federal government.” 

"This is such a pivotal issue for Columbus,” Pollard said. “It's something a lot of people are interested in for a variety of reasons, including how it impacts their everyday lives, but also the climate implications of having too many cars and not enough alternatives.”